Gary Knell is trying to change the world one muppet at a time.
by Dave Donelson
Gary Knell has a permanent twinkle in his eye. And why not? He’s a 54-year-old from Bedford who goes to the office every morning to teach 70 million kids to read with the help of an eight-foot yellow bird. Sure sounds like a lot more fun than selling municipal bonds.
Knell is Big Bird’s boss, not to mention the boss of Kermit, Grover, Cookie Monster, and Elmo. The father of two is the president and CEO of Sesame Workshop, the non-profit educational organization that brings your little ones Sesame Street each morning. It’s also behind the animated PBS series Dragon Tales and Electric Company, which is slated for a revival. I dare say every kid in Westchester—and their parents—know where Oscar the Grouch lives and can sing Ernie’s “Rubber Ducky” song.
There’s a spring in Knell’s step, too, partly from the exercise he gets walking from Grand Central to his office at Lincoln Center (something he does every morning, wearing hikers from Heller’s in Mount Kisco and carrying a backpack instead of a briefcase) but also from the sheer exuberance of living a dream. “This is the greatest job anyone could have,” he says. “How many times do you get to be the CEO of three-hundred-fifty people who use popular media to change the world?”
But all is not just sunshine and happy songs on Sesame Street these days. Sometimes, it’s more like trench warfare. “In 1988, there were two pre-school shows in the United States, Mr. Rogers and us,” Knell says. “Today there are literally fifty pre-school programs on TV, plus six competing networks.”
Sesame Street is still the No. 1 show for children in the New York demographic area (which includes Westchester), according to the A.C. Nielsen ratings for February, with an audience of nearly 75,000 kids on WNEW and WLIW combined. It’s closely followed by Mickey Mouse Clubhouse on the Disney Channel, and Ni Hao, Kai-lan and Dora the Explorer on Nickelodeon. With its measly annual budget of $125 million, the company goes toe-to-toe with Disney (annual revenues $36 billion), Viacom ($13 billion), and Time Warner ($46 billion) every day, vying for the attention of all those three-year-old consumers in an electronic universe with hundreds of TV channels as well as DVDs, websites, cellphones, and video games. To win, Knell has led the organization into new media with a vengeance since he took over as CEO in 1999.
You’ll find Sesame Street everywhere on the web, starting with SesameStreet.org. “You have access to two-thousand video clips that are catalogued by curriculum and by character,” Knell says. “If you want to teach your kid to count backwards, for example, you can call up a video with Count von Count. We view that as our channel of the future.” The brand is also a big draw on YouTube—a segment with Chris Brown and Elmo last year drew more than five million views.
According to Knell, Sesame Workshop also had the No. 1 podcast on the web last year. “Word on the Street” on iTunes uses Conan O’Brien, Brian Williams, Jon Stewart, and other well-known media personalities to help kids build vocabulary by playing with a word of the day along with a Muppet.
Then there is video on demand, which is available on Time Warner and Comcast cable systems (not Cablevision—yet). Knell says a million moms and kids download Sesame Street through Comcast alone each month.
Knell, only the third CEO in Sesame Workshop’s history, took over not long after founder Joan Ganz Cooney recruited him from WNET/Channel 13. He says he didn’t think twice about it because Children’s Television Workshop (now named Sesame Workshop) “was the shining star in the public broadcasting universe.” Cooney attributes much of Sesame Workshop’s ability to compete to Knell’s idealism and enthusiasm. “He is high, high energy,” she says. “He is the best leader we’ve ever had, and that includes me.”
Sherrie Rollins Westin, executive VP and chief marketing officer of the Workshop, says Knell’s energy level is legendary. “If you travel with him, he refuses to have downtime so you know he’s going to book every minute of every trip with, ‘Who could we see here? Who could we meet with?’” If you’re not with him, she says, it’s even worse. “We often say we have to keep him home for awhile because when he goes away, you always end up with a list of fifty things you’re going to have to do when he comes back.”
Knell says he has what’s referred to in art as “horror vacui,” a fear of empty spaces. “I need to fill empty spaces with activities, whether it’s with my family at a museum, play, or concert, or traveling to some exotic locale, or at work, where I’m on the run all day. I’m not good at slowing down.”
Energy aside Cooney says Knell’s biggest asset is his ability to look ahead. His boldest strategic move to date involved three giant steps: selling the organization’s interest in Noggin to Nickelodeon, using the money to buy the rights to the Muppets so that the Workshop could fully control their use and receive the revenues they generate, and then launching Sprout with three other partners to compete with the Nickelodeon-owned Noggin.
You might expect such financial legerdemain from Rupert Murdoch, but why is it necessary for a non-profit like Sesame Workshop? Mainly because you won’t see any Frosted Flakes commercials while viewing the programs, and even a non-profit has to pay its bills. Contributions from the public, grants, and other forms of philanthropic support represent a significant source of funds ($33 million last year), but nowhere near enough to cover all the operating costs. Fees paid by stations to carry the TV shows ($43 million) and product-licensing revenues ($52 million)—think Tickle-Me-Elmo—are what really pay the bills. Those bills are mounting, too, because all that new media development doesn’t pay—it costs, at least so far.
While Knell has been pushing the Workshop into new media, he hasn’t ignored the original mission of Sesame Street, which was to reach and teach preschoolers, particularly in disadvantaged homes. “We’re the only show that has consistently looked at child-development issues and applied those to media,” he says. According to its annual report, the organization spent almost $9.5 million on research in 2007. Most of it, Knell explains, “is scientific educational research in which we test segments with kids to make sure they’re pulling the lessons that are intended from the content.”
For example, Knell says, “we did a segment a few years ago in which Snuffie’s parents got divorced. Kids in tests thought their parents were going to get divorced every time they had an argument, so we never aired the segment.”
Another way Knell is keeping the program relevant is by taking its mission global. The program has always had some international distribution (a Mexican version, Plaza SÚsamo, premiered in 1972), but Knell has spread, those shaggy puppet teachers into more than 120 countries and sees more on the horizon. “There are one- hundred-fifty million pre-school kids in India. It would be the fourth largest country in the world—made up entirely of five-year-olds,” he says. The opportunity is huge, but the mission is serious, Knell says. ?“We take our model using research, content, and plot lines that deal with literacy, girls’ education, tolerance and respect, HIV/AIDS, global health, and other issues.” A framed handwritten note from Gerry Adams, president of Sinn Fein and spokesman for the Provisional Irish Republican Army, hangs on Knell’s office wall. It says “PS: Thanks for the Cookie Monster!” The Workshop is working right now in another hotspot: Kosovo
The Workshop still produces 26 new shows every year so it can stay current with issues of the day, such as childhood obesity and environmental concerns. Knell isn’t afraid to encourage his staff to take on unpleasant current issues either, especially when they affect the lives of children. He’s very proud of the 400,000 Sesame Street DVDs he got Wal-Mart to pay for to help families of U.S. soldiers serving overseas. The program helps them deal with issues of deployment, re-deployment, and homecoming, sometimes by fathers in wheelchairs.
There’s more to come from Sesame Workshop. You can imagine Gary Knell yelling, “Hey You Guys!!!” as he talks about how Electric Company is being reborn. ?“The six- to nine-year-old age group is the new vast wasteland in educational media,” he says. “We’re bringing back Electric Company for seven- and eight-year-olds, which is a critical time when you go from learning to read to reading to learn.” Knell got the U.S. Department of Education to give them $17 million in seed money, and he’s looking for some corporate sponsors to pay for production of at least 26 episodes.
It all melds together to make Sesame Street a significant influence on children everywhere. As Cooney points out, “The domestic show is affected by work we’re doing abroad, just as the American versions affect the international versions. Sesame Street wants to make children aware of the world they live in, that it is bigger than where they live in the U.S.” Watch Sesame Street these days and you’re as likely to see Elmo donning an Egyptian galabya and drinking mint tea as chomping on Chips Ahoy with Cookie Monster.